In the 16th century, Christian (Jesuit) missionaries to Japan initially found an enthusiastic and receptive audience, in part because they brought with them the possibility of economic ties to Europe. 300,000 Japanese converted to Christianity, but in time, the tolerance of the government authorities ended and Christianity was outlawed. In the years to come, suspected Christians were ritually tortured and killed, unless they denied their faith and “apostasized,” trampling on an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary. On February 5th, 1597, twenty-six Christians, including both European missionaries and Japanese laity, were crucified in Nagasaki. By 1630, Christianity in Japan had been completely driven underground. Set in 17th-century Japan at the height of the government persecution of Christians, Shusaku Endo’s Silence is a fictional treatment of a very real, devastating, and brutal historical situation.
A novel that could have as easily been called “The Passion of Padre Rodrigues,” Shusaku Endo’s Silence poses difficult questions and gives very few answers. Broadly, it is about the conflict between Christianity and Japan’s cultural identity. Specifically, Silence centers on a Portuguese priest who embarks upon a missionary journey to and through Japan, hoping to bring the sacraments to Christians in hiding and find out the truth of the dreadful rumor that Padre Ferriera, his former teacher, has apostasized. Rodrigues’ experience parallels that Passion of Christ, often quite literally. He is questioned, tortured, and even, at one point, rides a donkey in front of a crowd. This is not a hidden allusion; the priest frequently reflects on the similarities and usually finds encouragement in Christ’s acceptance of his pain. Rodrigues endlessly imagines Christ’s face, finding peace in the suffering he sees there.
Rodrigues’ anguish manifests in his constant plea for God to cease being silent in the face of such persecution. Why does God allow his true believers to endure such pain and torment? The priest at one point explains the traditional Christian explanation for the existence of evil – “God created everything for good. And for this good he bestowed on man the power of thought; but we men sometimes use this power of discrimination in the wrong way. This is evil” (89) – but shows signs that he himself has difficulty accepting this easy explanation, as when he silently asks God, “Why have you abandoned us so completely? Even the village was constructed for you; and have you abandoned it in its ashes? Even when the people are cast out of their homes have you not given them courage? Have you just remained silent like the darkness that surrounds me? Why? At least tell me why. We are not strong men like Job who was afflicted with leprosy as a trial. There is a limit to our endurance. Give us no more suffering” (96).
The novel explores the contrast between strong and weak men, endlessly considering what the difference might be and coming to no conclusion. Nor does it provide a decisive answer to the intense moral dilemma Rodrigues faces, as the Japanese peasants he came to save are tortured and killed because of his refusal to apostasize. And yet, if you look carefully throughout the book, there are hints of answers. Is God truly silent through this novel? Or is Rodrigues failing to listen? “The noise of the oars from beyond stopped, and a weak voice could be heard trying to answer. The priest had a feeling that he had heard this voice somewhere before, but he could not recall where” (96).
The sniveling Kichijiro plays the part of Judas, betraying Padre Rodrigues to the authorities. But he stands for more than a mere representation of a betrayer. He is a recurring presence in the book, for he follows the priest wherever he goes or is taken, continually confessing that he is Christian to the authorities, asking for forgiveness and absolution from the priest, then renouncing his faith when faced with the threat of punishment and death. I see Kichijiro as a model of Christ’s forgiveness: no matter how many times he falls, Christ would receive him back to his flock. The fact that Padre Rodrigues is unable to extend the same forgiveness highlights the fact that despite the similarity between his torment and Christ’s Passion, Rodrigues is merely human. Rodrigues too may fall, but readers are reminded that even an apostate priest can be forgiven.
This narrative raises many theological questions. Can someone have doubts about their faith and yet be Christian? Is Christianity truly universal? Is it still Christianity if a people newly introduced to it misunderstand some of its central tenets? And then there are the endless questions about Judas. Why did Christ accept Judas as one of his apostles? Did Christ forgive Judas in the end? Was Judas condemned to hell? Was Judas merely used as an integral part of a foreordained plan, given no chance to choose a different path? Silence would make a phenomenal choice for a Christian book club. I myself am trying to persuade both my husband and one of my priests to read it, in the hope that it will spark some difficult and deep conversations. This book makes you long for answers. It provokes serious reflection on theology and Christ’s forgiveness.
In conversation with my priest, I learned that the persecution of Christians in Japan is commemorated by the Church. The Roman Catholic church and the Anglican Communion celebrate the Feast of the Martyrs of Japan on February 6th each year. This is a lesser feast, one that most remain unfamiliar with unless their parish specifically celebrates it. Certainly I had never heard of it, nor did I know anything about this terrible period in Japan. After reading Endo’s powerful story, I am no longer blissfully ignorant. Christians died for their beliefs. Others chose to believe the authorities when they said that trampling was merely a formality and wouldn’t truly deny their faith. Some apostasized to save their own life or that of others. I and, likely, all you reading my blog are in the privileged position wherein we don’t have to wonder what we would have done in their place. Next February, though, I intend to say a prayer for the saints of Japan.
I need to thank Teresa of ShelfLove for her recommendation of this powerful book (found at http://shelflove.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/silence-reread-review). I couldn't not read it, after hearing what an impact it had on her own journey of faith. I can't say that it's my favorite book - perhaps because it is so heart-wrenching and difficult - but it has definitely provoked more thought that any of the other books I've been reading lately. Silence is a novel that will stay with me. Thank you.